Regional Reviews: Minneapolis/St. Paul
In spite of Woolf's title, Orlando is not a biography, but a fictional narrative, picaresque and fanciful in nature as it spans over 300 years and involves a young man who, at the age of thirty, becomes a woman. There is no gender reassignment surgery involved. He–Orlando–simply falls into a deep sleep and awakens seven days later as she–Orlando. All of Orlando's memories, preferences, mannerisms, and whatever else constitutes one's identity remain as they were. It is Orlando's physical form alone that has transformed.
Woolf is known to have been inspired to write Orlando by her close friend and lover, Vita Sackville-West. Sackville-West was known to be far more adventurous than Woolf in her relationships and loves, though far less accomplished a writer. Whether Woolf meant to imply that at Sackville-West's core was a male persona, or to claim that a person who is true to themselves–with the real Sackville-West and the fictional Orlando as two examples–cannot be bound by the constraints of gender, one can only speculate. To avert any reservations, it is not necessary to know anything at all about either Woolf or Sackville-West in order to thoroughly enjoy Ruhl's creation.
In the early 1600s, Orlando, a sixteen-year-old of good breeding and property, declares his intent to be a poet. His pretty looks and genteel manner catch the eye of Queen Elizabeth I, who invites Orlando to reside at the royal court. Many women are drawn to him, but he to only one–an elusive Russian princess named Sasha. With the Great Frost Fair of 1608 in full swing, their relationship develops while skating on ice–an indicator of neither great stability nor endurance down the road. This defining episode in Orlando's life is followed by many more escapades, which lead to seeking refuge in Constantinople, returning to England on a languid sea voyage, and eventually marriage to a man who seems a uniquely apt match for Orlando. As he, and then she, accumulates these experiences, time passes not by the year or the decade, but by the century, ending in 1928, the precise year in which Woolf's book was published.
Upon becoming female, Orlando is irked by the many disadvantages the change from male to female confers. In time, though, Orlando comes to appreciate that there are also advantages to being a woman in a society that expects women to sit comfortably, passively by while men serve and protect them, especially the case during the Victorian era. All the while, Orlando maintains the ambition of becoming a poet, though mostly in a theoretical sense as neither the male nor the female Orlando seems to have much aptitude for it. Surely, there is the desire to express experience with loft poesy, but alas, it is always the same as when Orlando struggles mightily to describe the grass before, after much effort, spitting out the word "green."
Director Carin Bratlie Wethern deftly uses the ensemble, who take turns throughout the two-act play. There are wonderful effects, such as a scene in which a buzzing housefly ricochets around the room–executed with the simplest idea, yet smashingly effective. Aside from Courtney Stirn, marvelous as Orlando, cast members play multiple roles as well as forming a chorus that announces portions of the story in the manner of story theater, with actors miming events as a speaker narrates them. Wethern threads a sharp needle that pulls the cast members' frequent changes of character, along with altered settings and leaps across time, into a whole that is always coherent and altogether enjoyable.
Stirn's Orlando comes across as an androgynous figure, a shade too pretty as a young man, a shade too handsome as a woman, and never completely at peace with either status. Stirn underscores how the business of figuring out his or her identity, not merely in terms of gender but in terms of purpose in this world, occupies Orlando's life, so that any attachments made to men or women are always subject to whatever may be discovered about ones true calling.
The remaining eight actors are a splendid ensemble. There is a varying degree of success in applying the called-upon accents to their speech, but no egregious pitfalls. Of particular note are: Amber Bjork as Sasha; Michael Quadrozzi as Marmaduke, Orlando's agreeable husband for a slice of her life; Andrew Troth as a solicitous sea captain; and Rachel Flynn as both the Archduchess and the Archduke, both in mad pursuit of Orlando.
The well-conceived costumes are invaluable to making Orlando work, as Mandi Johnson's designs allow for modifications that shift the styles from one century to another, with Orlando's apparel realized with particular wit. The set designed by MJ Leffler is dominated by an enormous oak tree, where Orlando returns time and again seeking inspiration for his poetry. A graceful wood-framed chaise at stage right and a bistro table with a couple of chairs at stage left are the only other scenery, yet we see the great forest Orlando and Sasha skate past, and a gathering of icebergs as the Great Frost recedes, thanks to utterly simple but ingenious stage effects. Emmet Kowler's lighting and Jacob Davis' sound design further contribute to what feels, in sum, like a large-scale production achieved in modest terms.
While Orlando raises a number of ponderous questions, it does so in a light and breezy manner, so that a viewer may choose whether to jump into the deep water and try to work through the issues Ruhl–and Virginia Woolf before her–raises, or to sit back and simply enjoy a delightful entertainment. Of course the two are not mutually exclusive, as I found myself responding in both ways. As Orlando discovers, the world need not be reduced to binary choices.
Orlando, presented by Theatre Pro Rata, runs through March 27, 2022, at the Crane Theater, 2303 Kennedy Street N.E., Minneapolis MN. Tickets: sliding scale, $16.00 - $61.00. Tickets must be purchased in advance online, no ticket sales at the door. For tickets and information, please call 612-234-7135 or visit theatreprorata.org.
Playwright: Sarah Ruhl, from the novel Orlando: A Biographyby Virginia Woolf; Director: Carin Bratlie Wethern; Set Design: MJ Leffler; Costume Design: Mandi Johnson; Lighting Design: Emma Kowler; Sound Design: Jacob M. Davis; Prop Design: Rachel Krieger; Dialog Coach: Keely Wolter; Dramaturg: Gina Musto; Stage Manager: Clara Costello
Cast: Anika Ashrit (Favilla, Penelope Hartopp, Maid 2, chorus), Amber Bjork (Sasha, chorus), Ninchai Nok-Chiclana (Russian Sailor, Othello, Priest, chorus), Rachel Flynn (Archduchess/Archduke, chorus) Nissa Nordland Morgan (The Queen, Maid 2, chorus), Michael Quadrozzi (Clorinda, Marmaduke, chorus), Emily Rosenberg (Euphrosyne, Desdemona, Washerwoman, Saleswoman, chorus), Courtney Stirn (Orlando), Andrew Troth (Captain, Elevator Man, chorus).